'American Idol' Front-Runner David Cook's Former Bandmates Recall His Early Years

'He's a killer songwriter,' friend says, 'and once people hear that, it's gonna be all over.'

Long before David Cook was an "American Idol" front-runner, a spiky-haired heartthrob or even a bartender in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he was just another kid from Blue Springs, Missouri, obsessed with baseball, chasing girls and playing rock and roll.

At least that's how Bobby Kerr remembers him. He and Cook first met as teammates on the Blue Springs Bombers when they were 12 years old, and over the next decade, they became best friends and bandmates, bonding over a shared dream of rock superstardom and all the trappings that went along with it.

"David and I went to middle school together, and neither of us were really musicians at the time, but we played baseball together," Kerr told MTV News from his home in Blue Springs. "We were both pitchers, but pretty much right then and there, we both realized that we could sing a bit. And that was the ticket to the ladies, so we started hanging and playing music. In high school, we figured out we were gonna be good musicians — we didn't play a lot of covers, maybe a little bit of, like, the Presidents of the United States of America or whatever — we were writing our own stuff. I mean, it was pretty embarrassing stuff, like, when you're 15 or 16 everything sucks, so the songs were about that, or about girls we went to school with or the pain our parents caused us. You know, stupid sh-- like that. But it was where we started."

The duo rehearsed at Kerr's mother's house, recorded a demo in a local church and then finally decided that it was time to play some real gigs (their first concert, in the driveway of Kerr's house, didn't count). So, they dubbed themselves Red Eye and got to work trying to land some shows — which proved tougher than they had initially planned.

"We weren't the most popular guys in school — there's not a lot of musicians around here — so everyone kind of made fun of us, which is why we decided to call ourselves Red Eye, because we were thinking, 'What do you do when you're pissed at someone? You give 'em the finger or you moon 'em, so, like, you show 'em your brown eye.' And that was a little too obvious, so we decided to call it Red Eye," Kerr laughed. "Like I said, we weren't the most popular guys. And so in order to get some gigs, we had to befriend a couple of guys who were on student council, so they would let us play school assemblies and stuff like that."

After playing more than their fair share of assemblies, Kerr and Cook decided it was time to ditch the Red Eye handle and step up to the big time. They renamed themselves Axium and headed south to Warrensburg, Missouri — the home of Central Missouri State University. There, the duo became a trio, with the addition of guitarist Jeff Shrout, and began playing shows at college bars. And that's when things started happening.

"At CMSU, David and I shared a dorm room together, and us and Jeff spent every day together," Kerr recalled. "Axium played a ton of bars in our regional area — Missouri, Kansas, Indiana, Wisconsin — we got asked by a sorority in Texas to go down and do a charity event. ... Then, in this bizarre coincidence, this girl who was the distributor of Axium CDs when we were in high school, her dad was a co-founder of this Movie Tunes thing at AMC Theaters, where they play music before movies. He contacted us and said, 'I want to put an Axium song in Movie Tunes,' and so one of our songs — a song called 'Hold' — was played in 20,000 movie theaters across the country, from the spring of 2003 to the spring of 2004. We were wide-eyed and thinking, 'This could be huge for us.' "

But it never quite panned out. Axium were courted by several indie labels and one major, but Kerr said that "it was one of those things where we'd be about to take the next step, only that step would never come." Discouraged — and feeling that the band had run its course — he decided to part ways with Cook and Shrout and took a job as a graphic designer in Wisconsin. That decision put a strain on his relationship with his oldest friend.

"I left at a time where the Movie Tunes thing had ended, things with the labels had fallen through, and I had felt like we had peaked and things had gone out the window, so I decided to move on," Kerr said. "And at that point, David and I were having a lot of musical differences and personal differences. But we had grown up together, and as is the case with anyone you've know that long, there's brotherly love and brotherly hate. And at that point, there was a lot less love between [us].

"When I left, they tried to keep Axium going, but it never went anywhere, so the band kind of sputtered out. Shortly after that, [David] went to Tulsa to pursue graphic design," Kerr continued. "And obviously, once we moved apart, we spoke a little less, but we were always keeping in touch."

For a pair of Axium farewell shows — in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Kansas City, Missouri — Cook and Shrout called on drummer Nathan Russell, who had shared the stage with them in his band, the Sound and the Fury. Knowing Cook to be a good guy, Russell agreed to take the kit for the gigs.

"Dave was probably one of the nicest guys I've ever met in a local music scene," Russell remembered. "Even if he wasn't playing, he'd come out to shows and stand at the side of stage and watch you play. Not a lot of people would do that. They tell you they loved your set, but really they'd be drinking beer at the bar the whole time you were playing. He'd watch your whole set, tell you it was awesome, and then help you load your stuff up. You'd be like, 'Dude, you're not even playing a show. Go have a beer!' "

After Cook moved to Tulsa, he spent time with another local band, the Midwest Kings, and worked on his solo record, Analog Heart. He also tended bar at area clubs, like Rehab Lounge and the Blank Slate. Though he occasionally spoke to both Kerr and Russell, neither had any idea that he was thinking about trying out for "American Idol."

"I play in an amateur baseball league in Kansas City, and I was in the on-deck circle, waiting to come up to bat," Kerr explained. "And a mom of one of the guys on our team, she knew about Axium, and she told me, 'Hey, did you know David was going on "American Idol"? And I was totally unaware, but right then and there, I remember saying, 'Well, he'll probably win.' "

"I've never watched ['Idol'] until this year," Russell said. "I ... went to Honduras and played drums for a portion of last year, and when I got back, it was right around Super Bowl, and I went to my cousin's house to watch the game. And during the game, there was an 'American Idol' commercial, and I hear this voice, and I was like, 'No way.' So I turned around real quick and, sure as sh--, it's him."

Ever since finding out their former bandmate was going to appear on "Idol," both Kerr and Russell have watched the program religiously. And while they've both put their dreams of rock superstardom on hold — Kerr works as a casino host (though he did record an album of Sinatra and Rat Pack standards in 2006), and Russell teaches music in Madison, Wisconsin — they're both hoping that Cook is crowned "Idol" champ when the show wraps its seventh season in May. After all, they knew him before he was famous, and they only want the best for him now.

"I spoke to David while they were doing Hollywood week, and I told him to let me know when he's gonna hold auditions for his band," Russell laughed. "People aren't getting the full vibe of him yet. They haven't heard his songs. He's a killer songwriter, and once people hear that, it's gonna be all over. I mean, he can rearrange songs and make 'em sound like stuff you'd hear being played on rock radio, but when people hear his own songs, they're minds are gonna be blown."

"I think now that flat out, he's got more stage experience than anyone else on that show — from '97 until 2005 we probably played 400 shows — and he knows what works up there onstage, and he knows what people will respond to," Kerr said. "He's honed his craft; he's a pro. David being on 'American Idol' is the oddest and coolest thing I've ever had to deal with in my life. I own every T-shirt, concert poster and demo Axium ever made, and I've got multiple copies of everything. I held onto all this stuff because I want to have something to show my kids someday. ... But now, who knows what could happen? One day, these things that I own could end up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or something."

See what music experts think of David Cook's career prospects after "American Idol."

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